Seodi White on CNN- ‘No ifs or buts’: Child marriage needs to be abolished in Malawi, once and for all

About 15 years ago, I was doing research on inheritance laws in Malawi and their impact on women.

Seodi White is a Malawian lawyer and women's rights activist who is determined to stop young girls from giving up on an education and marrying in their early teens.

Seodi White is a Malawian lawyer and women’s rights activist who is determined to stop young girls from giving up on an education and marrying in their early teens.

Part of my research methodology was to engage in focus group discussions with women in village settings. In order to do this in any village in Malawi, one has to seek permission from the village chief.

And so I did. The chief told me to come back the next day so that he can have time to mobilize the women, as well as give them proper notice of the proposed discussion.

When I came back the next day, the “women” had indeed gathered waiting for me. However I noticed that the “women” were not women, as such. They were… kids. Teenage girls.

I said to the chief “I was hoping to talk to women and not to kids or girls, as I don’t think they would understand much about inheritance.” His response was, “but these are our women; look, they have babies with them and they are all married.”

I was shocked. Then it dawned on me, “aah, girl-child marriages.” After asking, I found the girls’ ages ranged from 13 to 18, with two being 24.

This then spurred me into action and it was the beginning of a decade-plus journey of understanding girl-child marriages in my country and fighting for the practice to end.

What I found out was disheartening as the statistics came in. I was horrified to learn that Malawi has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world. It is ranked eighth of the 20 countries that are considered to have the highest rates of child marriage by the U.N. Population Fund.

On average, one out of two girls in Malawi will be married by their 18th birthday, according to the United Nations. In 2010, half of the women (50%) aged 20–24 years were married or in a union before age 18 (compared to 6.4%of boys), while 12% of women married before they were 15 compared to only 1.2% of men. Child marriage is in both rural and urban areas. It is also higher than the regional average for sub-Saharan Africa (37%).

‘Law, save the girls!’

Being a lawyer, I looked to the law. “My hero the law, save the girls,” I thought! Yet, I soon found out that this was a complex story.

The Constitution of Malawi, which is the supreme law of the land from whom all legal authority is derived, has provided for some measures of protection for all children. However the same Constitution defines children as those aged 16 and below. The United Nations defines children as those aged 18 and below and so to that extent the Constitution does not comply with international standards on definitions of childhood.

The Constitution also allows marriages of persons aged 18 and below and it does not have a cut-off point where marriage is actually prohibited.

This means for all intents and purposes, the Constitution of the Republic of Malawi allows child marriages. Alas the law had failed me!

False hope?

But there was hope in the air. In February, Malawi’s parliament passed the Marriage, Divorce & Family Relations Bill of 2015 into law.

This law was born amid the outcry against girl-child marriage, as the country had realized the dangers of girl-child marriage.

Save for a few areas, it is a very progressive piece of legislation, particularly from a women’s rights perspective. Among other things, the law prohibits marriage for anybody below the age of 18.

So, does it mean that the Constitutional provisions fall away? The spanner in the works is that since the Constitution allows marriage below the age of 18, the new law to the extent that it prohibits child marriage is invalid.

So whilst many have celebrated the new law, I haven’t, as girls remain shackled by a Constitutional provision that basically allows child marriage. So until the Constitution changes and recognizes children as those aged 18 and above, and therefore puts marriage age at 18 giving many girls the opportunity to go to school and get educated, I will remain sad as I was 15 years ago.

‘Guarantee for poverty’

I will remain sad because I know the cost of child marriage. It deprives girls of education and undermines their self-confidence and self-identity. It also makes them prone to physical and emotional abuse by their so called husbands.

Further to this, girl-child marriage inevitably means early parentage and higher risks of maternal mortality. As if this is not enough, studies have shown that girl-child marriage is a risk factor in the transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, as young wives do not have much bargaining power to negotiate safe sex with older men.

Girl-child marriages need to be prohibited tough the Constitution because they are a violation of every conceivable human right including the right to life, health, education, human dignity and development.

What I know for sure child marriage is a guarantee for poverty among girls in my country and I want it to end. No ifs or buts.

  • Seodi White is an international development, law and gender expert from Malawi. She runs Maxi Change 360 Degrees Consult, a consultancy firm, and is a researcher, policy analyst and program designer in women’s rights. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers.
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35 thoughts on “Seodi White on CNN- ‘No ifs or buts’: Child marriage needs to be abolished in Malawi, once and for all”

  1. Truth says:

    While I agree with Seod in most aspects but it is too optmistic to expect that matters of this nature can be regulated by the law. We will need to invest heavily in changing the cultural mindset where one is regarded as ripe for marriage the moment they start menstruating and it does not matter at what age. we need to invest heavily in girls education so that they should not always think that getting married is being more human or normal.

  2. Abiti Sipoko says:

    Go Seodi go its a good cause for the girl child of Malawi don’t be deterred by negative comments by these male chauvunists.

  3. PhoenixArise says:

    Seodi Mnthali-White, bravo on your good work. Service is our rent for the air we breathe and you my sister have paid forward indeed. I have read the comments with great interest, I applaud the effort to make the girl child safer. This is one facet of the mixed bag of solutions, you expertise is in the legal field hence you have chosen to fix the laws. Those in the poverty alleviation, education, health, youth development sectors should also do their part. Together we can save a generation and a nation.

    To my fellow men, deciding to assess Ms. Mnthali-White on her marriability and sexuality is indicative of what small minds you have. Deal with content not the individual. Its a wonder some pathetic woman married your misgynostic behinds and even scary that you are raising daughters with such sick outlooks towards women.

    Keep your head up Seodi…..

  4. Kokotowa says:

    Iwe chi Seodi, why are you peddling lies? You mean in the villages you went to all the women you found were under 18 except two?

    We know there are teenage mothers here but don’t sensationause matters!


  5. Zatha says:

    I wish you well Seodi!!!!!!!

  6. nachisale says:

    Well done, Seodi – your devotion and courage on women issues and gender equality is excellent. Do not be discouraged by men who are misogynistic and look down upon women and stupidly think girls and women will continue being tortured and remain second class citizens. The world is changing and though slow a f painful patriachal culture is melting. Also don’t let negative comments about you bring single derail your efforts on gender equality. Bravo!

  7. zte says:

    aaaaaaaaa demeti. … to hell wit white

  8. Tman says:

    Surely much as I also sympathize with you Seodi White, Malawi has a lot of work to do to reverse the knack. I take an example of a 13 year old girl being impregnated by a fellow classmate. What do parents do? Behavioral change lessons should go far and wide. Poverty and high illiteracy levels are impacting on us badly. I know the battle will be won, but not now. But still these girls have a big responsibility to decide. They should not be left out. They are the ones who pull down the pants but for what? Money, peer pressure, coercion or enjoyment? They should have some answers as well.

  9. My God please help us!

  10. Nyonyo says:

    Bravo sister

  11. Ndife amodzi says:

    Ambiri omwe amakamba malangizo a m’banja amakhala osakwatiwa, kapena kuti banja limawakanika. Ndaonera anthu awiri Jessy ndi Seodi.

  12. Peter says:

    Malawians too weak to think. So u think this law will be effective? How are u going to determine that the girl in question is below 18 yrs without Birth registration certificates? U will just end up with piles of unfinished cases in courts. Yambani kaye mwakonza maloopholes before u hurry to open ur stinky mouths disgruntled ladies. Let govt implement much touted citizen registration process, otherwise all these laws are nothing. Me as a lawyer I can win the case, even if I marry a 12 yr old. Because I know there is no doc to proof that the girl is minor. Ma card makolo anasetera kalekale!!!

  13. Mkanachigwada says:

    Wana wamadzi ghano nyere zikuya pakwelukwelu! Twana tudoo mbwee Tudelela chomeni tawalalawalala ise. Aseeee Walekani waka wanthu wagundengi. Malingana yanjila ndi kuti nkhalala ako. Tuviwunda nditu tunowa

  14. Mkanachigwada says:

    Wana wamadzi ghano nyere zikuya pakwelukwelu! Twana tudoo mbwee Tudelela chomeni tawalalawalala ise. Aseeee Walekani waka wanthu wagundengi. Malingana yanjila ndi kuti nkhalala ako.

  15. Kamwa ya Seodiyo imaoneka ngati ingatsope shaft bwino bwanji

  16. Chikopa says:

    Goverment must control population its amust , what is happening its uve weniweni ,pano sunganene kuti ndikupita kumodzi ndikapeze mkati angopezeka abonya enieni alo asungwana a standard 8 ang’onoang’ono kwambiri ndima private school oti mbali ina akuphikako kachasuwa angowadumphisa ma class mwana wa form 1 kumpanga HIE amangokuyana maso tudzu ngati wameza chule kulephela kuyankha.

  17. mdala says:

    Mwayambatu, mwayamba zija ndinkanena zija kuti sukuluyi pang’ono ndi pang’ono idzagonjetsa chikhalidwe,taonani lero mwana aphunzire kenako tsankho mwana wa mkazi aphunzire. Tsoka anzanga munabala m’midzimu ndimsampha umenewo afuna mwana akakwatira aziti mwalakwa ndinu wa ku ndende m’mbuyo muno ana otsalawo ndikuwalanda timinda.Moti inu njala ya kumusi ingathe ndi yellow bans?

  18. George Lihoma. says:

    Being at the rock bottom in poverty simple means early marriages for girls,fullstop.Zivutikanibe ndima research anuwo and muzidyabwe zindalama zopangira research koma zoona pankhani iyi ndizimenezi.Si-makolo/si-atsikana onse amasangalala ndi kukwatitsa/kukwatiwa msanga.Circumstances and near conditions to economical slavery force them to do thus.Hahahahahaha!

  19. mgawadere says:

    A seodi zisiyeno zamabanjazi inu zinakuvitani mutakalowa mutakula kale…tiyeni tizingodya nyama munyumba zathu

  20. Thyolo says:

    Abwele ku thyolo azaone,chikufunika simalamulo koma intesive civic eduation to change our mindset

  21. Man to man says:

    The way how Seodi has began her narration gives me indications that she was not brought up in Malawi. Should we say she was not aware that there are girl-child marriages in Malawi? If you do research in this area of expertise, why did you choose not come up with results?

  22. Tiko says:

    U r right SW on child marriage, but rushing things may not work if at all u have researched on our village social dynamics. There is need to go slow. Koma zoti banja latha ndiye wina adzipitilira kugwiritsa ntchito dzina la wina ndiye ndi zosokoneza.

  23. Jebison Slindine Nyoni says:

    Seodi while we applaud government for the recent enactment of the law to prohibit child marriages, the same government ought to intervene structurally by reducing the high levels of poverty. What pushes parents to marry off girls is nothing else but poverty especially in places where “lobola” and “chiwongo” have reduced our womenfolk into commodities. A boy child is such cultural milieu becomes a liability. We also need to look at these cultural elements that are harmful in our society otherwise slavery in form of women oppression continues to exist in our midst.

  24. gondwe says:

    Seodi Munthali:

    Mayiwa anakwatiwapo ndi Mr. White a chi coloured koma, eeeh, amakulira mtima mwamuna wawo ndiye anaganiza zowaleka ukwati, komanso sabala iwowa. Koma samamvetseba kuti ukwati unatha akukakamira dzina la a Mr. White.
    Pepani mayi Seodi lekani dzina la a White kuti ena akutoleni mungafere mu mphala.
    Ukwati ndi wofunika ndipo mkazi simutu wa banja koma mchira angaphunzire kapena kulemera chotani. Chitsanzo ndi Queen ku England amalemekedza mwamuna wake Mr. Phillip Windsor ndipo iye amati ndi Mrs. Windsor

  25. My Seodi this is Malawi. Even if laws are made they will never be followed. And see the contradictions the laws have with the constitution. This renders the laws invalid. You will write but you need to change the mindset of people in the village and that is a big mountain to climb. I wish you the best as you climb this mountain.

  26. me says:

    hey stop malubwelubwe

  27. ujeni says:

    They heading is a bit confusing. Not all of us are in legal profession. What does CNN stand for, at first i thought it had to do with the Cable Network News but the report is on Child marriage.

  28. charlie hebdo says:

    For Seodi, I wouldnt want to marry her. Im better off being single. Ndye mwamuna akhala iye’tu….

  29. John Suzi Makhawa says:

    Iwe Seodi, the law will not save these girls. These things are happening not because there is no law but due to abject poverty. I wonder most of the time when there is a problem you rush at attributing it to lack of law. As long as villagers remain desperately poor I swear before my God these things will not end. Girls will always open their legs to get what they want. That’s how they were made.

  30. Bertha says:

    This is like telling people not to eat mangoes which have started ripening until they are fully ripened and are falling down from trees on their own. Naturally girls are good in all respects at 16, 17 and are18 after that ………kaya . Sindinatchole mkhwani ine

  31. ian Bonongwe says:

    Seodi White when are you changing to your maiden name? I want to marry you. Ine Galan’gande kuno kwa ntopwa

  32. Cashgate 1 says:

    You are right Seodi, If you can put your energy in this area you may leave a mark that will last forever. Come to Mzimba (Manyamula, Mpherembe, Endindeni) Nkhatabay (Chikwina, mpamba) its worrisome to see as young as 13 years getting married. Something really need to be done. Especially to the parents who allows such should be charged for negligence.

  33. Nyamalikiti says:

    This lady is dis grantled sangapange lamulo lokomera abambo ayi.

  34. truth pains says:

    Nkhani yokwatila ana m’midzimu ndiye ndiyosayamba. Mulimbe. Indicators of a poor country.

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